This Harvard Study Tries to Unlock the Secret to True Happiness

3. What did they study? Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and… Rina - November 30, 2020

For a little over 80 years, Harvard Medical School has been studying what causes happiness. As part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Researchers have collected a plethora of data on their physical and mental health.

It all started when scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 during the Great Depression. They hoped the study would reveal clues on leading healthy and happy lives. Of the original study subjects, only 19 are still alive, all in their late-90s. Among the original recruits were the up-and-coming President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee. Women were not in the original study because the College was still all-male at that time.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
The Secret to True Happiness. Shutterstock.

1. The Study

Following these Harvard Grads for the past 80 years, this project was named the ‘Grant Study‘. Additionally, scientists eventually expanded their research to include their children as well. Who are now number 1,300 and are in their 50s and 60s. To find out how early life experiences affect health and aging over time. Some participants went on to become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers, while others ended up as schizophrenics or alcoholics.

During the next few decades, the control groups have expanded. In the 1970s, there were an additional 456 Boston residents also enlisted. They were 12 to 16-year-old boys who grew up in inner-city Boston. This study was led by Harvard Law School professor Sheldon Glueck, as part of what was named the ‘Glueck Study’. More than a decade ago, researchers began to include the participant’s wives from the Grant and Glueck studies as well.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
That feeling of contentment. Shutterstock.

2. What is happiness?

It seems like an odd question, but is it? Do you know how to define happiness? Do you think happiness is the same thing to you as it is to others? What’s the point of it all? Does it even make a difference in our lives? In fact, happiness does have a pretty important role in our lives, and it can have a huge impact on the way we live our lives.

Although researchers have yet to pin down the definition or an agreed-upon framework for happiness, there’s a lot we have learned in the last few decades. Happiness is that feeling that comes over you when you know life is good and you can’t help but smile. It’s the opposite of sadness. Happiness is a sense of well-being, joy, or contentment. When people are successful, or safe, or lucky, they feel happiness.

Researchers have pored through data. Shutterstock.

3. What did they study?

Over the years, researchers have studied the participants’ health and their broader lives, including their triumphs and failures in careers and marriage. Their findings have produced startling lessons, and not only for the researchers. “The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships have a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.” Researchers have pored through data, including vast medical records and hundreds of in-person interviews and questionnaires. They found a strong correlation between men’s flourishing lives and their relationships with family, friends and community. Several studies found that people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

Pleasure or contentment. Shutterstock.

4. Definition of Happiness

First, let’s take a look at the definition of happiness so we’re all on the same page. Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “happiness” is a simple one: “The state of being happy.” Not exactly what we were looking for, was it? Perhaps we need to dive a little deeper. Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “happy” is a little more helpful: “Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” That’s better! So, happiness is the state of feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. From this definition, we can glean a few important points about happiness: Happiness is a state, not a trait; in other words, it isn’t a long-lasting, permanent feature or personality trait, but a more fleeting, changeable state.

Happiness is equated with feeling pleasure or contentment, meaning that happiness is not to be confused with joy, ecstasy, bliss, or other more intense feelings. Happiness can be either feeling or showing, meaning that happiness is not necessarily an internal or external experience, but can be both. Now we have a better grasp on what happiness is—or at least, how the Oxford English Dictionary defines what happiness is. However, this definition is not the end-all, be-all definition of happiness. In fact, the definition of happiness is not a “settled” debate.

Emotional and physical health. Shutterstock.

5. Cholesterol vs Satisfaction

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them at about age 50. It wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said Waldinger in a popular TED Talk. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

The researchers also found that marital satisfaction has a protective effect on people’s mental health. Part of a study found that people who had happy marriages in their 80s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain. Those who had unhappy marriages felt both more emotional and physical pain.

Less depressed and happier. Shutterstock.

6. The Silent Killer

Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier lives, said Waldinger, and the loners often died earlier. “Loneliness kills,” he said. “It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” According to the study, those who lived longer and enjoyed sound health avoided smoking and alcohol in excess. Researchers also found that those with strong social support experienced less mental deterioration as they age.

In a part of a recent study, researchers found that women who felt securely attached to their partners were less depressed and happier in their relationships two-and-a-half years later, and also had better memory functions than those with frequent marital conflicts. “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” said Waldinger in his TED talk. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough. Those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Childhood and adulthood. Shutterstock.

7. Life Stages

Since aging starts at birth, people should start taking care of themselves at every stage of life, the researchers say.”Aging is a continuous process,” Waldinger said. “You can see how people can start to differ in their health trajectory in their 30s so that by taking good care of yourself early in life you can set yourself on a better course for aging. The best advice I can give is ‘Take care of your body as though you were going to need it for 100 years,’ because you might.”

Developmentalists break the life span into nine stages as follows: 1) Prenatal Development 2) Infancy and Toddlerhood 3) Early Childhood 4) Middle Childhood 5) Adolescence 6) Early Adulthood 7) Middle Adulthood 8)Late Adulthood 9) Death and Dying.

This list reflects unique aspects of the various stages of childhood and adulthood that will be explored in this book. So while both an 8-month-old and an 8-year-old are considered children, they have very different motor abilities, social relationships, and cognitive skills.

Family connections. Shutterstock.

8. Genetics and DNA

The study, like its remaining original subjects, has had a long life, spanning four directors, whose tenures reflected their medical interests and views of the time. Under the first director, Clark Heath, who stayed from 1938 until 1954, the study mirrored the era’s dominant view of genetics and biological determinism. Early researchers believed that physical constitution, intellectual ability, and personality traits determined adult development. They made detailed anthropometric measurements of skulls, brow bridges, and moles, wrote in-depth notes on the functioning of major organs, examined brain activity through electroencephalograms, and even analyzed the men’s handwriting.

Now, researchers draw men’s blood for DNA testing and put them into MRI scanners to examine organs and tissues in their bodies, procedures that would have sounded like science fiction back in 1938. In that sense, the study itself represents a history of the changes that life brings. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives.

Empathy and attachment. Shutterstock.

9. Relationships

In a book called “Aging Well,” Vaillant wrote that six factors predicted healthy aging for the Harvard men: physical activity, absence of alcohol abuse and smoking, having mature mechanisms to cope with life’s ups and downs, and enjoying both a healthy weight and a stable marriage. For the inner-city group, education was an additional factor. “The more education they obtained,” wrote Vaillant, “the more likely they were to stop smoking, eat sensibly, and use alcohol in moderation.”

Vaillant’s research highlighted the role of these protective factors in healthy aging. The more factors the subjects had in place, the better the odds they had for longer, happier lives. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment,” said Vaillant. “But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” People who have one or more close friendships appear to be happier. The sharing of personal feelings (self-disclosure) plays a major role in the relief of stress.

Turned out to be wonderful seniors. Shutterstock.

10. Don’t ‘Typecast’ Yourself, or Others

The study showed that the role of genetics and long-lived ancestors proved less important to longevity than the level of satisfaction with relationships in midlife, now recognized as a good predictor of healthy aging. The research also debunked the idea that people’s personalities are “set like plaster” by age 30 and cannot be changed.

“Those who were clearly ‘train wrecks’ when they were in their early or late 20s turned out to be wonderful seniors,” he said. “On the other hand, alcoholism and major depression could take people who started life as stars and leave them at the end of their lives as train wrecks.

How people manage stress. Shutterstock.

11. Fight or Flight

The study’s fourth director, Waldinger has expanded research to the wives and children of the original men. That is the second-generation study, and Waldinger hopes to expand it into the third and fourth generations. “It will probably never be replicated,” he said of the lengthy research, adding that there is yet more to learn.

“We’re trying to see how people manage stress, whether their bodies are in a sort of chronic ‘fight or flight’ mode,” Waldinger said. “We want to find out how it is that a difficult childhood reaches across decades to break down the body in middle age and later.” The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
Childhood experiences affect development. Shutterstock.

12. Effects of Childhood

The lasting value of childhood happiness. Recent research suggests that the impression of having had a happy childhood is associated with greater social connectedness, an enhanced sense of self, and healthy behaviors. Lara Tang, a human and evolutionary biology concentrator who recently joined the team as a research assistant, relishes the opportunity to help find some of those answers. She joined the effort after coming across Waldinger’s TED talk in one of her classes.”

That motivated me to do more research on adult development,” said Tang. “I want to see how childhood experiences affect development of physical health, mental health and happiness later in life. When asked what lessons he has learned from the study, Waldinger, who is also a Zen priest, said he “practices meditation daily and invests time and energy in his relationships. More than before. It’s easy to get isolated, to get caught up in work and not remembering – Oh, I haven’t seen these friends in a long time,” Waldinger said. “So I try to pay more attention to my relationships than I used to.”

Different yet the same. Shutterstock.

13. Group Differences

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.

That finding proved to be true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants. The long-term research has received funding from private foundations, but has been financed largely by grants from the National Institutes of Health, first through the National Institute of Mental Health, and more recently through the National Institute on Aging.

Both happier and healthier. Shutterstock.

14. But it’s more complicated than that!

The greatest takeaway from the study was the revelation that relationships bring us the most joy. Good relationships bring us the most happiness. But it is more complicated than that! The men in both groups who had better relationships with family, friends, and community were both happier and healthier than their less social counterparts. They also lived longer.

Lonely people had more health-related problems and reported feeling less happy. They also suffered from sleep disorders and more mental health issues. Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mother were less likely to develop dementia later in life and were more likely to have professional success”.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
Truly close friends. Shutterstock.

15. Quality (Not Quantity) of Relationships

Whether one has a small, cozy group of friends or a larger, more boisterous gaggle may depend on individual personalities and circumstances, but new research suggests investing in quality, not quantity will help you achieve true happiness. It is also suggested that you should preferably make those people your friends whom you’ve spent a long time with. That is possible with only a limited number of people. So it is believed that it is better to have a few friends you can truly count on and who value your company rather than having many friends who take you for granted.

Being in just any old miserable relationship will not make you happier. In fact, the study showed that people who were alone were happier than people in turbulent “high-conflict” relationships. What’s more, the number of relationships mattered more to people in their 20s than it did to people in their 30s. Apparently, when people had many friends, it didn’t necessarily mean they were happier than a person with just a few truly close friends.

Marriage has been linked to a lowered risk of dementia. Shutterstock.

16. Stable, Supportive Life Partners

Staying connected with people not only promotes better health, but it slows down mental decline. Married people who’d never been divorced, separated or having “serious problems” until age 50 performed better on memory tests later in life than those who weren’t, the Harvard study found. In general, marriage has been linked to a lowered risk of dementia.

Most surprisingly, the study revealed that while most of us consider acquiring wealth and working hard as the key components of happiness; it turns out that things are far simpler than we assume. Relationships, with friends, family, and the community surpassed all other factors in bringing happiness to the study participants throughout the 75 years they were surveyed.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
Enjoying your work affects your health. Shutterstock.

17. Careers and Professions

As for careers, having a meaningful connection to the type of work you’re doing is more important than achieving traditional success (i.e. wealth). Maintaining healthy relationships. Building healthy relationships with partners, friends and family is good for you.

It improves your mood, your mental health, and your well-being. Surprising Health Benefits of a healthy relationship include Fewer Doctor Visits. Less Depression & Substance Abuse. Lower Blood Pressure. Less Anxiety. Natural Pain Control. Better Stress Management. Fewer Colds. Faster Healing.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
Trust, safety, and mutual respect. Shutterstock.

18. What Makes For a Good Relationship?

What 3 things make a relationship? All strong relationships have three things in common, according to Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a psychologist and relationship expert: trust, commitment, and vulnerability. “Trust allows a couple to know that their partner is there for them, truly cares about them, is coming from a good place, and supports them,” she said. It means keeping your word and putting your relationship first, especially when you’re confronting a decision that might compromise it, she said. A minor example of following through is calling your spouse to tell them you’re safe if they worry when you’re running late, she said. And it means “demonstrating good character,” she said.

Commitment means, “We’re in this together no matter what,” Hansen said. As a couple, you work on finding a solution, not walking away, she said. Building a commitment also happens on your end. Hansen suggested engaging in activities that connect you to your commitment every day. “Vulnerability is all about taking the risk to be your real, genuine self [with your partner],” Hansen said. For instance, being vulnerable includes sharing your feelings, not your thoughts, she said. Instead of saying “I feel like you did this on purpose,” or “It seems you don’t love me anymore,” you explain, “I feel hurt, disappointed, worried or scared,” she said. “Vulnerability requires trust and safety in the relationship, but if you can truly attempt to reveal your softer side, then you’ll continue [to] grow closer as a couple,” Hansen said.

Best friends forever. Shutterstock.

19. What Doesn’t work?

People think that strong relationships require communication training, Hansen said. While communication is important, it’s not much help if your trust is shattered. A partner is emotionally distant or a partner is unsure about staying in the relationship, she said.

Communication actually naturally improves, according to Hansen, after couples start reconnecting and stop defending themselves. In fact, her first goal with couples clients is to help them strengthen their connection and feel emotionally safe, she said.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
Relationship satisfaction. Shutterstock.

20. Improving Your Relationships

Relationships require “small amounts of effort every day to nurture the bond between the two of you,” Hansen said. For instance, she suggested a variety of ways to strengthen your bond, including kissing daily; sending sweet text messages; unplugging during dinnertime; walking together, touching often; listening often; asking your partner about their big meeting, their happiness, goals, and dreams; making love; making eye contact; sharing your feelings and putting your partner first.

It’s also important to be able to pay attention and acknowledge the effect your fears and insecurities have on your relationship, she said. “Remember that relationship satisfaction will continually ebb and flow, but if you practice coming back to your ‘why’ — why am I in this relationship, why does this relationship matter to me — you’ll easily get back on track,” Hansen said.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
build good working relationships. Shutterstock.

21. Building Better Work Relationships

A positive relationship can improve your morale, productivity, and happiness which could lead to more career success in the form of promotions. Use the following strategies to build good working relationships with your colleagues:

Develop your people skills. Identify your relationship needs. Schedule time to build relationships. Focus on your EI. Appreciate others. Be positive. Manage your boundaries. Avoid gossiping.

increase your feelings of self-worth. Shutterstock.

22. Improving Your Self-image

Your self-image dictates what you will become. When you look in the mirror, strive to value the person staring back at you. The following are eight steps you can take to increase your feelings of self-worth.

Start small – Take it one step at a time. Say “No” to your inner critic. Take a 2-minute self-appreciation break. Go for good enough. Avoid falling into the comparison trap. Spend your time with supportive people. Don’t let the haters stop you. Dress in clothes that make you feel good about yourself.

Harvard Study Reveals - The Secret To True Happiness.
The secret to true happiness. Shutterstock.

23. The Takeaway

In a recent TED talk, Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger described some of the secrets to happiness, which were revealed in a recently released 80-year-long Harvard study. Apparently, we should value love above all else. It’s the main thing in life that brings us happiness. Once you see what really made people happy over three-quarters of a century, you won’t need to assume what will make you happy, and you may change your ways.

Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the study from 1972 to 2004, wrote about this important study with humor. He said, “The 75 years and 20 million dollars expended on the Grant Study points …to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ”


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Psych Central – 8 Keys to a Strong Relationship

WebMD – 10 Surprising Health Benefits of Love

Health Direct – Building And Maintaining Healthy Relationships

Health Central – The Link Between Giving and Happiness

CNBC – Harvard’s Longest Study of Adult Life Reveals How You Can Be Happier And More Successful

Inc – An 80-Year Harvard Study Says This 1 Thing Will Make You Happier and Healthier